Game Notes: Hawks at Suns
The music stops in Phoenix, but the beatings go on.
by Dennis Tarwood
As the trade deadline’s rambunctious round of musical chairs passed with Amar’e Stoudemire somehow still Sun-ny, Joe Johnson (ex-Suns star) and the Atlanta Hawks delivered their high-flying brand of basketball to Phoenix Friday night. Just like the trade rumor script, though, the expected plot was lost as Phoenix and Atlanta bruised and clanged their way to a meager 168 points as the Suns swatted away the Hawks for an 88-80 victory.
Pre-game, Suns coach Alvin Gentry focused less on his feathery opponents than his own charges, noting Steve Nash’s “mental fatigue,” Amar’e's near-Zen state during his third year in a row on the trading block, and Robin Lopez’s newfound mental focus while occupying the starting C slot. Quoth Gentry: “If… he keeps playing at the level he’s playing, (Robin) can destroy the whole glass front (lobby of US Airways Arena).”
The Hawks mostly lacked the need to regain focus after the deadline, though rumors continue to swirl that they’d like a shot at Zydrunas Ilgauskas once he’s been waived by the Wizards. Of course, he hasn’t been waived yet, so it’s all academic at the moment.
The first half promised as much drama as the deadline produced with matchups straight from Central Casting: Amar’e and Robin battling Josh Smith and Al Horford alternately, Mike Bibby and Steve Nash chasing each other through long screens, and almost no isolation work or forced 23-footers en route to a 50-49 Hawks lead.
In other words, it was NBA basketball as you remember it fondly on a hot August night with no games in sight. Both teams were patient but not stationary.
The teams danced to a standstill in the first half, with the Hawks shooting a mere 39 percent from the floor but making up for it with a few more free throws against the Suns’ 46 percent. Lopez threatened the backboard glass with 10/0/4 in the first half (and nine rebounds on the night), but amorphous solids were safe for the evening. Even Amar’e Stoudemire and Josh Smith’s cruelty to rims, evident before halftime on numerous occasions, didn’t cause damage.
Suns President/GM Steve Kerr emphasized in a letter to season ticket holders after the deadline that he wouldn’t break up the team if it means disrupting attempts to create “a fast, defensive minded team that will continue to play the up tempo style that the Suns have been known for.” (Yes, he remembers the Shaq acquisition. Promise.)
While it was charming at the time of the letter’s release to consider the notion that he’s remotely close to creating the young team capable of all those promises, it almost seemed like the Suns were out to prove that notion in the second half. Channing Frye, Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley and Lou Amundson (assisted by Stoudemire and Jason Richardson) fronted, elbowed, shoved, and otherwise upset the Hawks on their way to holding them to 30 second-half points.
This set rendered Mike Bibby’s advantage against Nash absolutely useless and, in turn, Bibby himself. He scored naught in the second half, turned the ball over twice, and generally got pushed to the periphery. Jamal Crawford did take advantage (11 efficient points in the second half), but it wasn’t enough to get others involved and salvage a win.
Of course, that Sunny D lineup isn’t the highest-scoring team in the League, either, so they managed only 39 points in the second half. Both teams went to slow-developing post plays and long isolation dribbles and away from the charming first half. But the Suns’ slightly better post performance (24 points in the paint in the second half to the Hawks’ 14) made the difference.
Where was Steve Nash for a 15-minute stretch of the second half, forcing this gritty flash-forward to the Suns’ future? “Mental fatigue,” we were told by Alvin Gentry again post-game. Of course, hurried whispers after the press conference hinted otherwise and were confirmed by Nash in the locker room: All the travel tweaked his back and otherwise worn him out, so he sat until the last few minutes of the the fourth quarter.
Another motivation may have been Nash’s status as the only small guard on the court all night, putting him under stress to wrestle with Jamal Crawford and Mike Bibby. Given that, throwing younger, taller, and stronger men on the court may have been an easier call for Gentry.
Nash wasn’t the only Sun descending, with Grant Hill nursing a toe injury and a case of the sniffles and Amar’e Stoudemire cursed with a sudden case of enochlophobia. In fact, the whole team hurried out after the game for a celebration, possibly a “You’re still here?” fiesta for the man of the night (22/0/8 on 8-13 shooting).
And Amar’e is indeed still in Phoenix, popping the Suns logo on his chest to fans after the game and enthusiastically referring to the team as “we” to the delight of the assembled. That should last until Amar’e's agent, Happy Walters, makes another prediction, but his trade tarot cards can wait for another day as the music has stopped and the locker room chairs are full.
The Hawks (34-19) swoop into Oakland Sunday to take on the Warriors while the Suns (33-23) set on dethroning the Kings the same night.
– The Milwaukee Brewers’ sausage race made an appearance during one of those timeouts with the all-American Caucasian-looking hot dog taking the title for the night. He immediately became Suns fans’ favorite bench player, supplanting Lou Amundson.
– Hawks benchwarmer Zaza Pachulia spent each timeout either stretching raising his hand in hopes Woodson remembered most NBA teams staff their rosters with more than six players. Didn’t work (4:31 of “action”).
– Another timeout was spent introducing four Tuskegee Airmen at center court for a spontaneous and sincere standing ovation. If Suns cheerleaders hadn’t reluctantly dragged the gentlemen off the court, Suns fans might still be applauding.
– But a Suns promotion to give away $10,000 to renewing season ticket holders was allowed to run over its allotted time, in case you were wondering about priorities.
– Finally, your intrepid-and-observant Game Notes writer couldn’t help notice the gift shop item of the game on the night Amar’e's salary was kept on the books long enough to force Suns owner Robert Sarver to pay the luxury tax: a piggy bank. Subtle, Bob.